Roi-Namur

Kwajalein’s Bread and Butter

The US Army's USS Worthy, at home in Kwajalein Harbor. The Worthy can travel long distances to set up for mission activities, where they track and observe various mission activities.

The Worthy, a missile range instrumentation ship at home in Kwajalein Harbor. The Worthy can travel long distances to set up for mission activities.

So why is the US Army interested in renting several islands in the Marshall Islands? A short answer is for the purpose of various test rocket missions, as an isolated area in the middle of the ocean.

While many of the civilian contractors on Kwajalein may have a rather normal sounding job (i.e., teachers, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, etc.), we all are here to support mission activities, primarily for the US Department of Defense. Basically we all get our paychecks from Uncle Sam, even though most of us don’t actually work directly for the government.

Coming out here, I have had an amazing opportunity to be a part of and to witness several interesting missions for the US Army, MDA, NASA, etc.

A Minuteman III approaching Kwajalein Atoll on re-entry

A Minuteman III approaching Kwajalein Atoll on re-entry, shooting across the handle of the Big Dipper

The most common type of mission we participate in is the Glory Trip (GT). An unarmed Minuteman III (intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM) is launched from Vandenberg AFB (in southern California) towards Kwajalein Atoll, a distance of about 5,000 miles that only takes some 20-30 minutes (according to Wikipedia, they can travel at up to Mach 23).

Most of the missiles splash harmlessly into the nearby ocean or occasionally the lagoon, or even terminate on the tiny island of Illeginni for the odd land target.

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Bigger bucks are sunk into intercept missions. We just attempted one of those this last weekend (LA Times: Problem-plagued missile defense system fails in $214-million test).

These missions are pretty much what they sound like; rockets are launched and other missiles try to shoot them down. Sometimes the rockets are launched from Roi-Namur and sometimes from Meck. Even little Omelek has had launches in the past. SpaceX used to use Omelek as one of their launch sites, but pulled out not long after I got here, due to budget cuts. Interceptors may be launched from Meck, Vandenberg, Hawaii, ships, etc.

Meck Island, Kwajalein Atoll; the site of many of the mission activities

Meck Island, with Omelek just to the north (up). The harbor with one of the docked catamarans is on the left (lagoon) side

Meck Island is about halfway up the atoll, on the east reef. No one lives permanently on Meck, though some live there temporarily; for the bigger missions they set up large tents.

Meck, with Launch Hill the raised area right of middle. Looking southeast, with the ocean on the bottom and the lagoon on top. Omelek is the next island north (off to the right) of Meck.

Meck, from the northeast (ocean) side, with Launch Hill the raised area right of middle

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Meck

Workers generally commute from Kwaj to Meck on a daily catamaran. The journey takes just under an hour at full speed.

Private Anderson at Kwajalein Harbor, one of two catamarans that daily takes workers to Meck and back

The Private Anderson at Kwajalein Harbor, one of two catamarans that daily takes workers to Meck and back

Not all of the missions are about testing warfare, though; sometimes we get more scientific missions like cool NASA launches.

There have been two NASA missions from Kwajalein that I have seen in the last couple of years.

The first was the launch of a high-tech x-ray satellite for studying black holes and such, called NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array). The satellite was tucked away inside a Pegasus rocket, which was dropped at a high altitude from a large aircraft, an L1011 called a Stargazer.

Stargazer landing at Kwajalein, with the Pegasus rocket attached to the belly

Stargazer landing at Kwajalein, with the Pegasus rocket attached to the belly

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One of my favorite parts of this mission was getting the chance to view the inside of the aircraft and see the rocket up close, while talking to NASA folks at an open “house” (aircraft?).

Most of the inside, where economy seating would be, was stripped down to reduce weight

Most of the inside, where economy seating would be, was stripped down to reduce weight

Where first class seating would be, they had a large instrument panel set up for controlling the rocket and deployment of the satellite. The screen on the right is showing a simulation.

Where first class seating would be, they had a large instrument panel set up for controlling the rocket and deployment of the satellite. The screen on the right is showing a simulation.

Living out my fantasy of being a pilot! The real pilot was taking my photo and explaining what did what.

Living out my fantasy of being a pilot! The real pilot was taking my photo and explaining what did what.

On mission night, the aircraft flew a ways south of the atoll and then released the Pegasus. When the first stage of the rocket fired, I was able to go up on the roof of the weather station and watch it fly high into the sky. I also saw the second stage, and just missed the third stage as I went back inside thinking we wouldn’t see it after waiting a while (the site manager remained outside a little longer and did see it, though).

The second NASA mission occurred just a couple of months ago, and was a two-in-one mission, called EVEX/MOSC. The object of this mission was to study turbulence and radio waves in the ionosphere just after sunset.

There were four rockets launched from Roi (two for EVEX on the same night, and two for MOSC each on a different night), which shot up into the ionosphere and released harmless colored chemical tracers that were then tracked by various instruments.

NASA MOSC cloud

NASA MOSC cloud

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I looked outside for this first one (MOSC), so what I saw shocked me and creeped me out.

Two or three minutes after I saw the rocket shoot up from Roi, I saw a small, brilliant pink orb rapidly grow in size to about maybe five times the size of the full moon. It was smooth but a bit fuzzy, bright (in a near pitch black sky), and pinkish purple, and if I did not know what it was, I might have been completely freaked out. It looked like something out of a bad scifi movie.

(As an aside, NASA was sending some of their people out to schools through the Marshall Islands, trying to educate the people a bit about what was going to happen. I think this was mainly so they wouldn’t worry too much, despite being rather used to mission oddities.)

After the orb hung in the sky for a few minutes, it started to trail off and fade, and after about 20 minutes it was gone.

I joked that NASA knew it was my birthday that day, as I got quite the show. 🙂

A few days later, the conditions were right for the EVEX launches.

First NASA EVEX cloud

First NASA EVEX cloud

NASA EVEX clouds (lower red cloud and green trail are from the rockets' descent, while the upper two are from the ascent)

NASA EVEX clouds (lower red cloud and green trail are from the rockets’ descent, while the upper two are from the ascent)

EVEX was also bizarre, but I was slightly more prepared this time for what I might see. This time we had a couple of green streaks and two large red orbs.

A couple of days later, MOSC was able to launch their final rocket, which looked pretty much like the first, though not quite as impressive (still very weird and mesmerizing).

So what do I do during missions? In short, as you could probably guess, the meteorologists provide weather support, giving more detailed and frequent forecasts and nowcasts (very short-term forecasts) to mission test directors. We don’t make any of the decisions as to whether the launch goes or not, but given the weather criteria, we advise those who make the decisions.

Mission time can be very exciting and very stressful, depending on the complexity of the mission and whether or not the weather decides to cooperate. I am glad that I have had such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of something like this, especially the scientific missions that may benefit people for years to come.

For more mission-related (including Meck Island) photos, check out my missions and Meck Flickr set.

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Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, Roi-Namur | Leave a comment

Under the Sea

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Instead of writing about individual scuba dives, some of which I have already done on my Kwajalein blog, I’d like to share a bit about the experience as a whole, where I have been, and where I hope to go in the near future.

I have always loved the ocean. I grew up in Washington State, and spent a lot of time in the mountains and a little bit of time on the coast. If my family had to decide between mountains and ocean, my Mom and I would always say ocean, while my sister and Dad would always say mountains.

I love looking across the ocean and thinking about what and who is on the other side, and what all is under the water. Now that I have lived on a tiny island surrounded by nothing but water for two years, I yearn for the mountains, so am that much more excited that I can have the best of both worlds in New Zealand.

At any rate, coming to Kwajalein I figured I would finally take the plunge and learn how to scuba dive.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

Within two months of my move, I was certified as an open water diver, which meant that I could dive to 60 feet.

On my first dive, I fell in love.

Kwajalein’s waters are warm, clear, full of marine life and wrecks, and not full of people (actually I liked that about diving; you can hang out with people without having to talk with them). It truly feels like swimming in a giant tropical aquarium, and it’s right in my backyard.

I love a friendly octopus

I love a friendly octopus!

To tell the truth though, it took me a couple of extra lessons in the pool before I passed that portion of the scuba class and was able to go on the first dives. I have long enjoyed swimming, but my biggest fear has always been drowning, and I had a hard time relaxing that first time breathing under water.

I then remembered a memory I had long suppressed; when I was about 5 years old or so, I jumped off a diving board in a public pool near Seattle, and lost my orientation. I remember swimming down instead of up, and then I blacked out. When I came to, a friend of the family was leaning over me, probably assessing whether or not he needed to perform CPR. I guessed that’s probably where my long-standing fear of drowning came from.

I’m generally one to face my fears head on. I was terrified of my first tornado, so I decided to go storm chasing. I was terrified of drowning, and decided to scuba dive as soon as I had the opportunity. I see a cliff, I want to walk to the edge and look down. Okay, not always, but sometimes I feel that urge, but know I’m only invincible in my dreams.

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Taken by my dive instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

I really don’t say this to boast, though, but more for the benefit of those who are scared to go diving. If I can do it, you can do it.

A few months after I completed my initial training, I completed the advanced diver class, and was certified to dive to the recreational dive limit of 130 feet. I also took Nitrox training, which means I can dive with a higher blend of oxygen, allowing me to stay in the water longer on some deep dives, with lower risk of getting decompression sickness (DCS, aka the bends).

Since I love photography, it was only natural that I should want to take my camera underwater. After I began with just a relatively cheap point-and-shoot waterproof camera, I decided to go all out and upgrade my DSLR to a Canon 7D and purchase a full underwater system for it.

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Yes, it’s heavy, and a bit unwieldy, but underwater it’s only slightly negatively buoyant and works like a dream (most of the time). I’ve been told I look like a submarine on night dives, with my two strobe lights on and my wide angle 8-inch-diameter dome port.

While it was quite expensive, I have not once regretted spending the money. I have only to improve my photography skills, as the equipment is top notch and I expect to use it for years to come.

Underwater photography has given me more of a purpose and happiness while diving and snorkeling. While I love to just quietly observe marine life, the most dull dive can usually be made interesting if I have my camera with me, as I can always see something from a different perspective.

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Clownfish are my favorite fish to see and photograph!

I have enjoyed about 100 dives around Kwajalein Atoll. I could have had many more, but did start to experience a bit of burnout earlier this year as I had already been to many of the sites so many times, and wanted something fresh. In spite of what I just said about my camera making a difference, I just needed a bit of a break to do other things (such as spearfishing in the tide pools for lobsters and crabs at night–quite fun!), and felt pretty happy about some of my photos from many of the sites.

I have dove from Kwajalein to Roi-Namur, and so far my only trip outside of the Marshall Islands to dive was to go to Kona, Hawaii, to see manta rays (my blog post from that dive). I have seen manta rays here at Kwajalein, but Kona is one of the famous spots for large groups of them.

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I had never seen such beautiful creatures, and it remains my favorite dive.

Aside from the marine life, Kwajalein Atoll has many WWII wrecks. I already wrote about the planes near Roi-Namur recently. One of the best wreck dives near Kwajalein is the Prinz Eugen, a German WWII battleship which you can learn more about on this Wikipedia link.

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

There are so many highlights photos I could post; so many of my favorites. So instead of bogging you down too much here, I hope you will go to my Flickr collection of dive photos.

Clown Triggerfish

Clown Triggerfish

As to where I hope to go diving in the near future, New Zealand has lots of great diving, so I’ve heard. I’m just going to need to get a much thicker wet suit or learn how to use a dry suit, as the waters are just a bit colder there!

There are lots of interesting sites for marine life, including probably the most famous, Poor Knights, off the northern peninsula of the North Island. There are also opportunities to go diving in and around an active volcano, and to see some wrecks such as the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship blown up by the French in 1985.

Speaking of facing fears….they also have Great White Shark cage diving off of Stewart Island, just south of the South Island. I think I’m going to have to do that at some point soon!

Categories: Adventure Sports, Hawaii, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Roi-Namur, Scuba Diving and Snorkeling, United States | 2 Comments

Roi-Namur: Island of Misfits?

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Let’s begin with a brief history and geography lesson which may be helpful for better understanding this post. The country in which I have lived for the last two years, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is located in the west central Pacific Ocean, and is made up of many islands and atolls. An atoll is a sunken volcano, where all that is left is a ring of coral that builds a reef around a lagoon. Each of these atolls may be made up of dozens of small islets and islands.

I live on Kwajalein Atoll, supposedly the largest atoll in the world (disputed by Chuuk Atoll, in the nearby Federated States of Micronesia). My particular island, Kwajalein, is about the largest island in the atoll, at a whopping one square mile. Kwajalein is located at the far southern point of the atoll.

During World War II, the Marshall Islands played an important role in the Pacific theater. The Americans eventually won out, but many remnants of the war, such as both Japanese and American structures, have remained (not to mention many ships and planes that have proved excellent dive sites). Since the war, the Marshall Islands gained their freedom, but the USA began to pay big bucks to rent out certain islands for military work.

Japanese Cemetery on Roi-Namur, honoring those who lost their lives defending the island in WWII

Japanese Cemetery on Roi-Namur, honoring those who lost their lives defending the island in WWII

That’s the short story, and that’s the basic reason why I’m here; to serve a contract on a US Army base, to support test rocket launches and the occasional public launches such as NASA satellites.

There are about 1,000 people that live on Kwajalein Island, most of whom are American civilian contractors. Roi-Namur Island is also rented by the US, and is situated about 40 miles away on the north point of the atoll, home to about 70 people.

The joke is often told that the misfits and those who possibly annoy their boss are sent to Roi, but in reality it is a nice, quiet place and most of those who are there chose to go there, and tend to stay longer than people that live on Kwaj. It is an even tighter-knit community with less drama on average.

Looking towards the airport and golf course on Roi. The main mode of transportation on Kwaj and Roi is the bicycle, followed by the golf cart ("scooters", as they are called here, may be rented).

Looking towards the airport and golf course on Roi. The main mode of transportation on Kwaj and Roi is the bicycle, followed by the golf cart (“scooters”, as they are called here, may be rented).

Roi and Namur used to be two separate islands, but the narrow strip of water between them was filled in over the years and now the two have become one, Roi-Namur (still generally call it Roi, for short). The people all live on the Roi side, while the many radars that are used to track the missions are located on the Namur side, which is still heavily forested (and infested with rats, hence the nickname for Roi residents–“Roi Rats”).

ALTAIR, the largest radar on Roi-Namur, pokes up above the jungle

ALTAIR, the largest radar on Roi-Namur, pokes up above the jungle

Some people commute to Roi from Kwajalein, about a 20-minute free flight on the metro (see Wikipedia link for photos of this type of small plane, as I have yet to obtain any of my own due to regulations on taking photos around the airport). All you have to do to go to Roi is get your name on the standby list, and as there are several flights each day, most of the time you will be able to make the flight you want (though due to weight limits, any heavier or larger bags may have to be returned to you on a later flight).

I have been able to go to Roi on two occasions. The first was a weekend in March 2012, when I was supposed to go diving but my dive partner missed the flight and I instead spent an enjoyable couple of days with a few teacher friends. The second time was Thanksgiving weekend 2012, when I finally got to go on the dives I wanted.

American WWII bunker

American WWII bunker, Roi-Namur

Roi is a great getaway for Kwaj folks, and I have tried to go back up in the middle of the week, but commuters are given first priority. Also, there are no flights on Sunday, and I rarely have a three-day weekend arranged so that I can go up for a couple of nights. Still, I am glad that I have been able to visit the radars and WWII sites, as well as go on several great dives.

Kwajalein has only a few of the WWII sites left, but Roi-Namur still has many.

Japanese WWII structure

Japanese WWII structure

Remains of a WWII pillbox

Remains of a WWII pillbox

WWII structure

WWII structure

Roi also has a couple excellent beaches, the longest of which my friends and I relaxed on one afternoon.

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On my second trip to Roi, I got to dive oceanside, the Eiko Maru or 1st Ship (they have very creative names on Roi…the three ship dive sites are numbered, as are the first eight or so islands on the southeast reef), 8th Island, the Airplane Graveyard, and a C46 cargo plane.

The main reason for my wanting to dive up there was to go to the Airplane Graveyard, but I was actually so impressed by the large number of sharks I saw on the oceanside dive, it was a surprise favorite dive. We saw probably 20 or so sharks, mostly gray reefs, and many of them got quite close to us in their curiosity. The largest ones were probably about 6 feet long.

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The Eiko Maru, or 1st Ship as the locals call it, was a Japanese merchant ship sunk some time around WWII. Here we saw some interesting coral formations growing on the ship, and some beautiful (but thankfully harmless) jellyfish.

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King post on the Eiko Maru

8th Island was a fun little dive in which we saw some marine life and pretty corals in the shallows, but sadly missed our target of the reef dive site known as the Gardens. The two divers who had been on that dive had only been there once before, and I’m sure it would have been difficult to find if you didn’t know just where it was or the GPS coordinates.

Brain coral, 8th Island

Brain coral, 8th Island

The Airplane Graveyard certainly lived up to expectations. After WWII, about a dozen or so airplanes that the US no longer had need for were removed of their engines and shoved into the lagoon at this site. This was my first time diving airplanes, and it was pretty awesome!

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Our final dive of the weekend was a C46 cargo plane. It was empty inside and looked a little sad without the wings, but again was an interesting dive.

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I did write a couple short posts from my dive trip on my Kwajalein blog that you can check out if interested, most of which is filled with more photos (Roi Diving and Roi Dive Photos).

I also just started (finally?) a Flickr account, and you may see a good selection of all of my Roi-Namur photos, both above and below water, in this collection.

Categories: Marshall Islands, Roi-Namur | 4 Comments

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